II. The subject of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day

The canvas depicts the Saint Martin’s Day wine festival. The 11th of November, the saint’s feast day, was celebrated by eating “Saint Martin’s Goose”, coinciding with the autumn pig-killing, while the new wine made from the recently picked grape harvest, known as Saint Martín’s wine, was sampled. The coincidence of the saint’s feast day with the end of the grape picking meant that Saint Martin’s Day became associated with a free distribution of wine to country people outside city gates. As a result, and despite the presence of Saint Martin in the painting, dividing his cloak on the right, this is not a religious composition or a devotional work, nor, however, is it a genre scene. The focus of the composition is the celebration of Saint Martin’s Day as it took place in Flanders and in the Germanic world at this period, where it had something of the character of a bacchanal and was the prelude to the winter carnival. Its iconographic precedent is to be found in a painting by Bosch known from a tapestry in the collection of Patrimonio Nacional2. Bruegel’s painting clearly expresses an ironic tension between the charity of Saint Martin (often depicted from the 15th century onwards as a fashionably dressed aristocrat) and the excesses of the feast that bears his name.

The composition is set in late autumn with numerous bare trees and is located outside a city gate, the architectural style of which suggests the Porte de Hal in Brussels, and near to some country dwellings. In the centre the artist has located an extremely large barrel of wine painted in a red tone and standing on a wooden scaffolding structure. Around it are a crowd of varied figures: young and old men, women, some with children, peasants, beggars and thieves, all attempting to obtain the largest possible quantity of wine.

While some of the figures who have succeeded in filling their various containers are now back on the ground, others, in their attempt to reach the wine, are clinging to the supports of the scaffolding or have cast themselves onto the barrel or are leaning forward at considerable risk to themselves in order to collect the wine as it emerges from the barrel, using the widest range of receptacles, including hats and shoes. Bruegel reveals his dazzling mastery in arranging and fitting together the group of around one hundred figures, creating the effect of a mountain of humanity driven by gluttony: a sort of Tower of Babel of drinkers. The artist creates a deliberate contrast between the central group around the barrel and the much more stable, pyramidal group that depicts the charity of Saint Martin on the right. The composition is completed on the opposite side on the left by the figures who are clearly suffering from the effects of the wine, and here Bruegel depicts those who have been carried away by the sin of gluttony rather than following the path of virtue, in contrast to Saint Martin. Examples of such figures include one vomiting, another lying unconscious in his own vomit on the ground, two men fighting and the woman offering her baby wine.

As with Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s compositions reveal a critical attitude typical of the day towards peasants, drinkers and drunkards, as well as towards beggars, who also appear in the painting3. Painted at a key moment of the Reformation, whose ideas Bruegel shared, the present painting reflects to some extent the issue of the cult of saints and the efficacy of good works, of which Saint Martin’s charity was among the finest examples. In addition, we should probably take account of Erasmus’ satires on saints’ feast days, in which gluttony becomes the first of the Capital Sins.

In this sense there is a clear iconographic parallel between the present painting by Bruegel and the central panel of The Haywain by Bosch of around 1516 (Museo del Prado), although the depiction in that work is of a symbolic and allegorical nature. Bruegel’s composition remains firmly rooted in the reality of his own time.

2 See Martin W. Walsh, “Martín y muchos pobres: Grotesque Versions of the Charity of St Martin in the Bosch and Bruegel Schools”, Essays in Medieval Studies (Proceedings of the Illinois Medieval Association), 14. Back

3 See M.A. Sullivan, Bruegel’s Peasants. Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance, Cambridge, 1994. Back

 
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